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Ask The Trainer: mastering the pull-up

Goal-setting is important so that you have something to strive for, whether you’re in a fitness rut or if you want to see big changes in your health or your body. This week, Heather is showing us her goal. She wants to be able to complete a pull-up.

Fitness expert Doug Quinlivan at Ascent Fitness says it’s not uncommon for a woman to have trouble with a pull-up. But, he said it’s something that’s achievable, that you have to train yourself to use the right muscles. “One of the big mistakes people make when doing a pull up, is they try to do it with their arms.”

Instead, the power of a pullup comes from your back, not your biceps. “Your bicep is a fairly small muscle, whereas your back is a big, large, strong muscle. So the idea behind the pull up is to use your back as much as possible.”

Start building strength with a lat pull down. “So you want to practice that motion and then get to a place where you feel that good strong pinch between your shoulder blades.”  Doug suggests starting with 20 reps, stacking on weight for 12 to 15 reps and then adding more weight for six to eight reps. “You should really feel that nice and intense back there,” he said.

Same idea for the seated row. Eventually you want to be able to lift what you weigh. “Keep your biceps relaxed and pull that in and pinch those shoulders together.”

The rear delts are also important and there are two exercises that can really target those. Bend forward at 45 degrees and raise your arms to the side, or behind you. “Really think about that delt. When you think about it more, you’re going to feel it more in that muscle.”

And, even though it’s a smaller muscle you can’t forget about your bicep. Doug says really focus on that muscle and squeeze at the top.

Them when you’re ready, try a negative pullup. That means jump up and go slow on the way down. “Squeeze the shoulder blades and use your back.” That should get you ready. Heather still has some work to do.

If you have a question for Doug, email